Discovering the Pakistani connection in my native Scotland

Last summer, I decided to take my family with me to Scotland for what would possibly be our last such journey to visit the place of my birth. I was about to close the sale on the house in which I was born in Edinburgh in 1956, a house and a home that had been in my family’s possession for 110 years.

The really interesting thing about the sale was the new owner just happened to have been born in Karachi, Pakistan, which meant I was born in Edinburgh and now living in Karachi, and the purchaser of my “ancestral” family home was born in Karachi and now living in Edinburgh. And if that was not enough of a bizarre coincidence, the taxi driver, Mohammad, who shuttled us from the airport to our swanky Edinburgh hotel — where I had started my career as an apprentice chef in 1973 — was yet another Pakistani, this time from the Punjabi city of Lahore, and incredibly, he played the bagpipes. Finally, we were surprised and delighted to see the kilted doorman of our swanky Scottish hotel was yet another Pakistani, this time from the capital city of Islamabad and a third-year medical student studying to be a surgeon. 

After getting over the initial shock of meeting so many Pakistanis in my home city of Edinburgh within a few hours of arriving directly from Pakistan, I asked them all to join my family for dinner that evening at the best Pakistani restaurant in the city, which funnily enough was called Gandhi’s, where we all swapped and enjoyed travel tales and the exotic tastes of “home.”

The next morning — after a delicious traditional Scottish breakfast of porridge, kippers, Ayrshire bacon, black pudding, Highland cheddar cheese and oatcakes — we left the hotel for a brisk walk up the Royal Mile from Hollyrood Palace (yes, it’s Hollyrood, not Hollywood), the Queen’s official Edinburgh Residence, towards the majestic Edinburgh Castle, where we intended to buy tickets for the world-famous Military Tattoo, scheduled to start that evening.

Halfway up “the mile,” as we passed by centuries-old Scottish Kirks and graveyards, we popped into what is commonly referred to by the locals as a “corner shop” or “newsagents” for some liquid refreshments. What greeted us upon entry to the tiny shop, which was located within a tenement building more than 200 years old, was the familiar smell of freshly cooked samosas, which were being carefully laid out on a tray by the shopkeeper, Mrs. Fazli, who together with her bus driver husband had immigrated to Scotland from Karachi in the 1970s.

Once she knew where I had traveled from, she invited us to sit for a while at the back of her small shop to enjoy her delicious treats, along with a cup of sweet tea, which was typical of the friendly and quite touching hospitality I have encountered all over Pakistan since my arrival in Karachi in 2007.

As we were about to leave, her husband, Abdul, arrived and offered my young son a set of junior bagpipes as a gift, which was quite overwhelming considering we had only just met them a few minutes previously. What was also of great interest to my inquisitive 12-year-old was the fact that the label on the box indicated that the bagpipes had not been made in Scotland — they had in fact been made in Sialkot, Pakistan, a city I later discovered boasts more than 12 bagpipe factories that produce and export 75% of all bagpipes played around the world.

While trying to take in this astonishing fact, Abdul offered me a wee dram — a single shot of whisky straight up, of course, which is customary when welcoming visitors and friends to your home in Scotland, but certainly not in Pakistan.

As a chilling Highland wind was blowing outside, I gladly accepted and found it to be one of the most unusual single malt whiskies I have ever tasted and which, surprisingly, turned out to be Pakistani, from the Murree Brewery in Rawalpindi.

As a result of that first memorable taste of the rather interesting 12-year-old Murree Millennium Reserve Single Malt at 75% proof, and the VERY strong Murree Classic Beer, both are now promoted, too, and in great demand by my thirsty western guests in Karachi, many of whom are somewhat amused and then delighted to discover the unusual taste and the powerful effect of these high-quality Pakistani libations. But more about that in my next blog, “How Scottish is Scotch?”